Wet Markets and Postmodern Angst

Tianzifang Wet Market

Let us go, you and I. . .

Let’s skitter past the complexities of my recent absence (as well as my current presence)—the AQI was a lovely, round 90 as I stepped off the plane during the tail end of the holiday break this Year of the Pig—factories were closed and traffic had vaporized into thin air. This is the closing and opening and reworking of new chapters (figuratively and literally). My charge is on her way to India, and I’m finishing the final chapters of the book—checking on general THINGS that might have disappeared—poof!—entire sections of Shanghai cleared away like conquered chess pieces over the course of a few months.

Most of it is still here. I’m happy to feel Shanghai’s energy—its crushing aromas and crammed streets, its unmolested nappers and the general din. Hello, WeChat and thank you, Sherpas. It’s good to see other things, more generally, in Asia where the world seems to be waking to a new order.

American cities have started to feel a little insipid by comparison—like a tedious argument, you might say. Adventure is like other addictive experiences—after a while, nothing can compete; the seeker is always hunting for greater novelty. I suppose that’s why people become addicted to travel or sex and maybe even to danger.

The happy fact is that while a few things have disappeared under the rising concrete wave of the Yan’an Elevated, the wet markets are just the same. Chinese officials sometimes shutter spontaneous sidewalk markets—the wet market that once bordered the school’s campus (and made it feel a part of China) was “relocated” in 2015 when the neighborhood became too posh for the throng of people wanting to grab some turtles or eels or cabbages for dinner. Or, perhaps it was preparation for the apocalyptic devastation of Huacao Town by highways and tunnels?

Donghu Lu Wet Market

IMHO, not much can compete with the novelty of a neighborhood wet market. The little market on Julu was the first place I walked—the Donghu market was next. My favorite Shanghai wet market, the one where a Westerner will feel truly out of place, is hidden in a maze of buildings off a side street, in a truly Chinese neighborhood, a few blocks from the Jade Buddha Temple. It’s a long walk.

Wet Market Noodles

Farmer’s markets in the U.S. don’t exude quite the same energy as Chinese markets. I can’t explain why. If you avoid looking at the people, this farmer’s market in Portland, piled high with greens, might not seem much different than a Chinese wet market.

Portland Farmer’s Market

But wet markets in Shanghai are in China. They wallop your senses as things in China tend to do—it’s too bad odors are not an asset in America! These wet markets are teeming with mysterious edibles, interesting carcasses, and communications that are (for me) utterly without comprehension. There are none of the artistically packaged goat cheeses and fancy foodie salsas endemic to American farmer’s markets. I sometimes have no clue what I’m buying, and I always have zero idea what people are saying. Which I happen to like.

The thing about wet markets, the thing that makes you visit when an existential crisis (you promiscuous cad) is shoving his ruthless tongue in your ear, is their insistence on the sensory.  Intense interaction. Curiosity. Response. Lots of staring. The kind of human experience that exists outside Internet arguments. It forces you out of your head.

Walking around a wet market runs counter to the concept of existential crisis. You simply cannot tolerate meaninglessness (or despair) when you’re bartering over the price of greens. Everyone is deeply. . . present. Bartering cultures force people to engage individually and ponder consensus. Daily compromise rules wet markets—compromise without substantive consequence. There’s no space in the brain for thinking I’m pinned and wriggling on the wall when you’re focused on communicating in chuckles and sign language.

Wide-eyed, mouth like a well, riding speechless into the boiling pot. . .

So, hurray for wet markets, the pick-me-up of choice in a country that still occasionally metes out the death penalty for drug offenses. Since I’m feeling sentimental about Shanghai, and deeply dislocated, I’ll wrap up the post with an existential poem. Not “Prufrock” which I’ve already too liberally quoted. Everyone’s read it.

To honor the season (February) and the setting, I’m posting “Long Moment Inside Winter,” (who hasn’t had one of those). This is Marcel’s best existential poem, actually. It’s a meditation on retreat. It’s metaphorical. It’s literal. It’s ironic. It’s representative, you might say. It also feels socially prophetic from today’s vantage point. It’s a great expression of postmodern angst.

It’s also a poem that moved George Plimpton, [then] editor of The Paris Review, to write Marcel a lengthy hand-written note commenting on its Dr. Strangelove flavor. Well, the note was lengthy for a rejection, since Plimpton was not moved quite enough to actually publish the poem. If only there were Bandersnatch options in life—click the remote and choose a different outcome. In the alternate version, Plimpton skips the note and accepts the damn poem. But, I digress.

The poem reminds me of the way something simple like a wet market (or a ‘buncha crows) can seem symbolic and vital when propped up next to professional and personal disillusionment, or existential crisis, or the possibility that the bomb that destroys us all is the Internet, not a nuke. It’s a 24-year old poem, which makes it more about long-suffering than a long moment. If you aren’t made breathless by the line, “the only real trees still needling existence are stunted spruce” or terrified by a lonely wind “not pitchless, not constant or frigid” that blows “je suis je suis je suis THROUGH you like sieve,” well then, you’ve never had an existential crisis.

In that case, Chinese wet markets will also seem quite boring to you.

I leave you with the chorus of voices, each in its room. . .

Long Moment Inside Winter
By Marcel Gauthier

The kids bow their heads
to a quiz. The window,
stark vérité: gray sky;
silvery sycamores sans leaves;
‘buncha crows.

One, perched, bobs
beak opening, beak opening
stretching its neck like a heckler
(which it is). Some
swoop between the limbs
or hop limb to limb or
try to getta grip
of the top twigs, teetering
with cocked wings; swaying.

Cawing up a racket, clearly, but this
is cinéma muet. The kids
bow their heads to a quiz. Strange,
I’m crying.


In Los Angeles the millionaires build houses on the cliffside
which stand on stilts.
Slim Pickins’, maybe,
yee-hawing, Stetson-sawing

But I think, when the “eight” hits,
the house starting sliding like a sled
(roara dust), he’ll stand at the door
wide-eyed, mouth like a well,
and ride speechless into the ocean.


He’s always feeling deeper to think it true:
today, this second, do I love you?
And as it isn’t always perfect-true,
he thinks it’s emptiness or error too
feigning to endure; looks to someone new.
He’s always feeling deeper to think it true.


In the White Mtns. of New Hampshire,
(Vermont too, I suppose) if you’ve followed
a stream and not a trail
up, seen
the icy water (slipped in it boot-full)
sliding off the granite, speckles
washed to flow: half-reflection
orange AND green, though clear in the hand;
and sounding an almost imperceptible
diminuendo: unending brushed cymbal, soft solos
on the “xy,” a base-cacophony
like the pedals of a piano pressed-let-slip,
exhaling all strings;
if you’ve followed so high
the water doesn’t tear, feeds instead
a miniature forest: star moss, spaghnum moss, liverwort,
sundew; with an iridescent sheen (little
hairs? flowers?) red and gold;
if the only real trees still needling existence
are stunted spruce, with the palest green lichen
like coral on the bark, and you can’t find even
a space to crawl through, have
to take stock;
you’ll hear,
since you’re trying,
the wind, the most lonely I know,
not pitchless, not constant or frigid,
with a scent of sap; but enough to believe
je suis je suis je suis  THROUGH you
like a sieve; enough
to hike down.


We labor for the leaving.
The artist draws a line, and it’s a masterpiece!
I cannot find the pond we drift to in the evening.

A mother’s grieving
in a photograph in Africa on the screen; where is peace?
We labor for the leaving.

A chorus of voices, each in its room, sings, weaving
a silent piece.
I cannot find the pond we drift to in the evening.

Huge houses barely breathing
huddle behind a wall like a fortress on a precipice.
We labor for the leaving.

Branches and shadows at the forest’s edge; reaching,
I once found peace.
I cannot find the pond we drift to in the evening.

We close our poems open, the emptiness unceasing.
We’ll have no piece of peace!
We labor for the leaving.
I cannot find the pond we drift to in the evening.


that lend and take color
to and from the sky: a tin
backdrop for the puppet show
of crows. I almost say

mais je ne veux pas             (but I do not want to)
mais je ne veux pas             (but I do not want to)
enseigner cela;                     (teach that;)
ils l’appredront sans moi.  (they will learn it without me). 

If I were somewhere else.
If I were someone
new. This


But as I drive the Greenway in an hour
westward down to another rise, the field
at left split by a fence, the one-half plowed
into a fingerprint, the other fallow,
a tree in the center spanning both, lonely
and alluring, I’ll be speeding home to the one
I love and in whose love is my entire
faith, for what does one hold onto (a child
looks up) but a feeling and a promise.

Huacao Town wet market entrance appropriately looking like a black hole



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